All In the Family? Settling the (Materialism) Nature vs. Nurture Debate

They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.”

- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Have you ever wondered what causes materialism? Do capitalist ideologies or advertising practices cause our lust for stuff? These questions are important, as there is a mountain of negative consequences associated with materialism. Researchers find that highly materialistic individuals—those who believe that material possessions are the main source of happiness—not only routinely buy more than they need, but also tend to be less satisfied with almost everything else in their lives. They are dissatisfied with their jobs, their salaries, their relationships, and themselves.

Humanistic theorists have long argued that materialism, or a focus on having, prevents individuals from reaching their full human potential and causes alienation and discontent. There is growing evidence that excess consumption—far beyond satisfaction of basic needs—exacerbates social inequalities and results in serious environmental impact.

Given these implications for individuals and society in general, it certainly seems like we should be striving to determine the sources of materialistic desires and tendencies. And yet, there is no consensus about the origins or causes of materialism. Do materialistic desires result from our upbringing? Our culture? Our genes?

A study by Justine Giddens, Julie Schermer, and Philip A. Vernon, from the University of Western Ontario, examined the extent to which materialism is due to genetic and environmental factors. They recruited 240 pairs of same-sex identical and fraternal twins. As a benchmark, individual differences (e.g., personality, values, happiness) are about 45% heritable. However, much to the surprise of the researchers, individual differences in materialism were almost entirely attributed to environmental factors (i.e., not genes). They concluded their article with an encouragement that other scientists work to determine the environmental factors that influence materialism (e.g., media exposure, peer groups, familial disruption, parental neglect, etc.).

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values. To learn about your spending habits and what influences your buying behavior, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Materialistic Values Scale and our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

Julia Godzikovskaya, a graduate student in the Personality and Well-being Lab at San Francisco State University, contributed to this blog.

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